Le Mans legend Bob Wollek lost his life in a road accident in Florida on March 16. The superfit 57-year-old French racer was cycling from the Sebring circuit to his hotel when he was struck by a vehicle driven by an elderly man. Wollek was one of the unsung motorsport heroes of recent times, rarely getting much recognition for his extraordinary achievements in the field of sportscar racing. He will always be best known for the race he failed to win; he competed in the 24 Hours on 30 occasions, but his luck always conspired to defeat him.
A successful skier in his teens, Wollek briefly tried rallying before moving into single-seaters. A big shunt in an Formula Three race delayed his progress, but he then showed well in F2 with Ron Dennis, finishing a creditable seventh in the European championship of 1972, and sixth the following year.
An F1 break never happened, so sportscars became his focus, and he established a strong reputation as a leading Porsche racer with Kremer and later Joest. After a spell with Lancia he finally landed a works Porsche drive in 1986, establishing a relationship with the factory that endured until his death. Wollek’s Le Mans struggle took on epic proportions. His most frustrating outings there came in 1995 and ’98, when errors by team-mates stranded him in second. He had better luck in the States, winning Daytona four times and Sebring once.
His driving career was compromised by his role in the family garage business, which he inherited from his father. He had a tough period when they lost the Strasbourg Mercedes franchise in the ’80s, before linking up with Jaguar.
Wollek was an intriguing character. Witty and articulate in both English and German as well as his own tongue, he was also something of a loner. He did not always establish a good relationship with his co-drivers, an attitude which sometimes stemmed from his frustration with the ‘superstar’
reputations of the F1 or Indycar aces with whom he was often paired. But teams always rehired him, because they knew he’d do the job.
Wollek lost out in the recent move from GT1 s to prototypes, and had not driven a front-running car at Le Mans since 1998. He had reluctantly accepted that the elusive win there would never come, and four weeks before his death told me: “If I drive a GT3 Porsche, it’s just to say that I’m at Le Mans, I’m still racing, and I’m enjoying it.” Sadly, he won’t be there this June.